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Artificial Intelligence – Five Societal Priorities

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, and Alexandra Whittington
How can we ensure that advances in science and technology are harnessed to secure the betterment of all humanity?

If aliens visited Earth, we’d expect to witness world changing technologies with capabilities beyond our imaginations—blurring the boundaries between reality, fiction, and magic. Even without the aliens, artificial intelligence (AI) is displaying the ability and potential for dramatic disruption—promising deep-rooted impacts across sectors, from manufacturing and transport (think driverless vehicles) to education and mental health.

The future applications of AI are limitless and unknowable—we are too early in its evolution to know how far it could replicate and ultimately exceed the human brain’s capabilities. Predicting the reactions of humans, businesses, governments, and civil society is almost impossible as there is limited understanding of AI’s potential or willingness to think deeply about impacts and consequences. Forecasts vary of how many jobs could be replaced or created through the adoption of AI and its sister technologies.

Whether 80% of jobs are eliminated or 50% more created, the new jobs will require advanced skillsets and mindsets. The transition will be dramatic, painful, and require new knowledge and competences. Governments, businesses, and civil society will need to rethink the assumptions and mechanisms that underpin our world. We believe five areas should be central to societal discourse, business strategy, and government policy in order to avoid inevitable shocks and crises: raising technological literacy, ownership of technological innovation, micro-business creation, ensuring technological advances serve humanity, and the consequences to health and well-being.

An ill-prepared society is possibly the biggest risk. To prepare for change we must understand its drivers. Government ministers, business leaders, front line staff, teachers, and parents need to understand the science and technology developments shaping the future and the new ways of thinking, business models, and game-changing ideas they enable. This is a personal responsibility and something firms and governments could address through in-service training and adult education offerings. Free and cheap online platforms already provide the content—the challenge is encouraging access and building it into both personal development and back to work programs.

A deeper understanding of AI in particular would clarify why  so many experts and commentators are raising concerns about ownership of critical future technologies. There are warnings that   a few highly powerful investors and corporations could literally dominate and dictate life on Earth. The fear is that they will develop and own the core technologies and applications that underpin every business activity, government decision, social interaction, and financial exchange. Some argue for strict controls on the extent of such intellectual property (IP) monopolies. Others suggest the IP for critical technologies such as AI should be taken into public ownership and made available for firms of all sizes to access, possibly paying a revenue share into public funds to finance future developments and the costs of basic income and service provision to those displaced by automation.

Today, we have no idea of how many jobs automation will displace over the next decade. We can though make reasonable assumptions that large numbers of tasks will be automated—even in professions such as medicine, law, and finance. It is also hard to estimate the scale of total task replacement. For example, would safer autonomous vehicles mean the beginning of the end for repair garages and auto insurance policies as the manufacturers or even the cars themselves seek to cover their own reduced liabilities?

The one certainty is that people will need to take more responsibility for their incomes through the creation of small and micro-businesses. Employers can play a massive role here in providing start-up training and mentoring through the early phases of business creation for employees they are replacing with technology. The most forward thinking might even co-invest with such businesses to help them get started and potentially provide them with a route to market. Governments could provide similar services and easy-to-use online platforms for business creation, marketing, networking, financial management, invoicing, accounting, and tax submission, enabling founders to focus on the development of their business.

Finally, the threat or reality of technological replacement is already adversely impacting physical health and mental well-being across a range of occupations. An accelerating pace of change seems likely  to exacerbate this. Online tools could help people deal with stress in a confidential manner and help train the next generation of mental health professionals.

Clearly, the accelerating pace of technological development could bring significant benefits. There are also genuine concerns about the potential for dehumanization of those left behind as wealth and power becomes consolidated into the hands of the few. There will inevitably be concerns over raising taxation to fund all this—to which the counter-question would be how will we fund the consequences of failing to prepare and inaction?


  • What key impacts of AI should society be preparing for today?
  • How can we prepare adults and children for a world where technology will perform roles traditionally undertaken by humans?
  • What role should the state play in governing the deployment of disruptive technologies?

This article is excerpted from Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity. You can order the book here.


Image: by geralt

A version of this article was originally published in The Financial Times.


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